Women of the pleasure quarters
a Japanese painted screen

29 August – 3 November 2013

The Asahi Shimbun Displays
Objects in focus

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This beautiful screen evokes the world of pleasure and entertainment created for men in Japan of the early 1780s.

Welcome to Yoshiwara – the most famous brothel district of Edo (modern-day Tokyo). This rare surviving screen depicts elaborately dressed courtesans, who would today be referred to as female sex workers, presenting themselves to attract clients at the brothel known as Kado-Tamaya, the Jewel House on the Corner.

During the Edo period in Japan (1600–1868) a military government regulated almost every aspect of daily life, promoting duty and hard work, but the ‘floating world’ (ukiyo) of the brothel and theatre districts presented a more seductive message – surrender to the pleasures of the moment. Today the ‘floating world’ is known mostly through woodblock prints and hanging scrolls. This screen is one of the most important paintings from this school of art, being one of only a few large-scale depictions of the subject to have survived.

Combining evidence from popular prints and specialised guidebooks, this display offers insights into the culture, etiquette and sexual economy of the so-called ‘pleasure quarters’ (yūkaku) of the period. Explore the artistry of this exquisite screen and find out what it meant to be a woman of the pleasure quarters, both in public and in private.

Courtesans of the Tamaya House. Detail from a screen painting attributed to Utagawa Toyoharu (1735–1815). Japan, late 1770s or early 1780s.

Explore the screen

Find our more about the screen painting Courtesans of the Tamaya House on the Google Cultural Institute